Rebranding modern China today, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a focal part of Chinese foreign policy as well as the basis of its domestic economic strategy. Titled “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, the official document signifies the “opening up” of China to the world.
China has not looked back since the successful implementation of Deng Xiaopeng’s reforms in 1978 and it wants to share its expertise and experience with the world by executing an open economic venture for all.
Unfortunately, the Belt and Road Initiative has been received with suspicion on the whole by the Western bloc and its allies. In the beginning, it was considered an alternative to the ASEAN grouping in the region but as time passed it became more large-scale and experts started linking up BRI with the “String of Pearls” theory.
Coined by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in his research study in 2005, this term describes the network of maritime facilities as “naval bases” acquired by China in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. After its financial investments in strategically located ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, China’s trade initiative got a negative profile.
Singling out the naval option and China’s access to the seas, rivals felt threatened and assessed the trade initiative from the geo-strategic point of view. There should be nothing wrong with sea-trade, but in his book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, US Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan had stated that nations that dominated the seas would rule the world.
At that time these were the British Empire and the US. Considering the fact that the BRI links Eurasian ports with railways, roads and pipelines and opens up landlocked regions of China and Central Asia to connect them with strategically placed seaports, it does become a slick combination of land power and sea power.
It is highly improbable that China would be able to get Colombo, Dhaka, Islamabad and Rangoon to be part of any “great game” as all these countries have balanced ties with global powersSabena Siddiqui
Eurasia and multi-polarity
Shifting the power base to Eurasia would result in multi-polarity at the very least, and large scale connectivity of new powers could result in the end of empire for the traditional power base.
Reviving land routes of the ancient Silk Road along with the “maritime silk road”, China actually wants to secure its oil supplies and avoid the Malacca Straits route, which becomes a “choke-point” in case of regional friction. Acquiring new resources and establishing new safer trade routes has become unavoidable for China as the domestic energy demand is growing.
Not only that, there is a big difference between civilian and military vessels plying down these sealanes. Zhou Bo of China’s Academy of Military Science has clarified that China has no military strategy pertaining to the “string of pearls” and once the “mega-projects” are completed they will “help mitigate security concerns”.
He says, “China has only two purposes in the Indian Ocean: economic gains and the security of Sea lines of Communication (SLOC) Access, rather than bases, is what the Chinese Navy is really interested in.”
Notably, this has also been called the “Eurasian Century” due to these win-win developments, regional integration and the prospect of stability and economic prosperity. Investing in the maritime infrastructure with economic aims, China’s BRI with its six land corridors benefits each and every country involved with added connectivity and trade facilities such as special economic zones.
Integrating existing cooperation
Discussing China’s plans, Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying said, China’s aim in creating the “silk road economic belt” is “integrating all the existing cooperation, especially that in the field of connectivity with neighboring and regional countries and enabling everyone to share development opportunities.”
Unavoidably, the commercial ports of Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Sittwe and Kyaupku in Myanmar have become known as the “string of pearls” which bears a military connotation.
Depending on seaborne energy supplies, China wants access to a safe sea route and these conventional shipping facilities would need some security from the piracy threat even in peacetime but that does not qualify as military ambitions.
Keeping China’s constant non-confrontational stance in mind, the most it might want would be some degree of limited sea power for security and deterrence.
Finally, it is highly improbable that China would be able to get Colombo, Dhaka, Islamabad and Rangoon to be part of any “great game” and face controversies as all these countries have balanced relations with global powers. Additionally, it is fast becoming a multi-polar world and power blocs are less menacing nowadays.
The ports do have long-term strategic value but the main purpose is promoting a peaceful environment for trade and defusing regional maritime tensions, not “conquering the world.” In the end, the “String of Pearls” theory will remain a myth and geo-economic realities will be the main drivers for Chinese development.
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist and geopolitical analyst with special focus on the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC and South Asia. She tweets @sabena_siddiqi.